The longest day

From the initial bombing to the establishment of an Allied bridgehead, David Randall chronicles the progress of the great invasion
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The Independent Online

6 June 1944

6 June 1944

00.05 Allied air forces bomb German defences between Le Havre and Cherbourg.

00.10 British 6th Airborne Division parachutes in north of Caen to secure bridges over Orne River. Lieutenant Poole first Allied soldier to set foot on French soil. German radar jammed along whole French coast.

00.16 Paras seize eastern flank of Sword Beach area, including Pegasus Bridge. Within 15 minutes Major John Howard sets up command post and sends message "Ham and Jam" - code for success.

01.00 US 82nd Airborne Division parachutes in west of Saint-Mère Eglise.

01.15 Main body of US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions start landing by parachute and glider behind Utah Beach and begin capturing exits.

01.37 French resistance goes into action against 1,050 sabotage targets.

01.50 Rest of British 6th Airborne Division parachutes in east of Orne river.

02.45 Troops for Omaha Beach board landing craft in very rough seas.

03.50 British paratroops start attacking village of Ranville.

04.00 Field Marshal von Runstedt in Paris orders two Panzer divisions toward Caen, but order delayed until Hitler can confirm. He is not woken for fear of annoying him and it is late afternoon when he sends message to Paris.

04.30 British Paras attack German long-range guns at Merville Battery east of Sword landings. Knocked out 15 minutes later, but only 80 of battalion of 600 survive. Sainte-Mère Eglise captured by US 82nd Airborne Division.

05.20 Bombers drop first bombs on German targets.

05.35 German shore batteries open fire; Allied naval forces, now massed along entire Normandy coast, begin bombardment.

05.37 E-boats attack Allied destroyers.

06.30 Assault on beaches starts.

- US 4th Infantry Division begins landing on Utah Beach. Objective: to capture Cotentin Peninsula and port of Cherbourg. Limited defences, quick progress.

- On Omaha, only gap in 100ft-high cliffs between Utah and Gold Beaches, the 116th and 16th US Infantry, 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions try to land. First waves all but wiped out by continuous, heavy, raking machine gun fire. Terrible carnage amid formidable obstacles. Objective: to connect US troops at Utah with British and Canadian beaches to east.

- Royal Engineers and 50th (Northumbrian) Division land on Gold. Objective: to capture Bayeux and Caen-Bayeux road, enabling Allies to use east-west roads and link with US troops from Omaha. Three beach exits cleared within an hour.

- Landing on Sword, easternmost beach, led by British 8th Infantry Brigade Group. Objective: to advance towards Caen; link with Paras and glider-borne troops.

- 3rd Canadian Division landing on Juno made more difficult by strong current. Delay allows Germans to mount strong defence. Objective: advance inland and join troops from British beaches.

07.00 German radio broadcasts first report of landing.

07.05 Carnage continues on Omaha. US troops pinned down and face 200-yard sprint across open sand. Engineers cannot clear obstacles.

07.50 Nos 4 and 10 (Free French) Commando land on Sword. Heavy fighting, but within 45 minutes three beach exits cleared of enemy.

08.20 Follow-up battalions and 47 Commando land on Gold.

08.30 First armour landed at Omaha. Rangers and 116th Infantry from Omaha reach top of cliffs at Les Moulins and start clearing defences. Germans bring in reinforcements. Still chaos on beach, radios knocked out, machine-gun fire continuing. Col George Taylor of 16th Infantry tells men: "There are two kinds of people on this beach: the dead and those about to die. So let's get the hell out of here." And 48 Commando lands at St Aubin, Juno Beach and heads east. Beach clearance difficult due to high tides and rough seas.

09.00 General Eisenhower issues communiqué announcing start of invasion.

09.13 Omaha chaos goes on. General Bradley fears he may have to call off assault, summons reinforcements. But gradually, in next hours, troops make way up cliffs and knock out German positions, all under withering fire.

09.30 Casino at Riva Bella, used by Germans as strongpoint, liberated by Free French commandos. Hermanville taken by troops from Sword. But heavy German opposition and incoming tide on Sword hinders advance and congests beach; reserve brigades held up.

09.35 Canadian 8th Brigade liberates Bernières.

09.45 Utah Beach cleared of all defenders.

09.50 Fierce resistance at Le Hamel for troops breaking out of Gold Beach. Commandos make Port-en-Bessin to link with US forces. CSM Stan Hollis, 6th Green Howards, wins VC at Crépon. US 18th Infantry goes ashore at Omaha as naval bombardment brought down on Omaha defences.

10.00 Six battalions landed on Utah. La Madeleine strongpoint captured. Troops from congested Omaha Beach begin advance on Vierville and St Laurent. Within an hour Vierville captured.

10.45 Reserve battalions coming ashore on Utah. 101st and 4th divisions link up, securing first exit from beach.

10.50 Reserve brigades start landing on Gold; seven beach exits secured.

11.12 After fierce fire fight, 7th Brigade secures Juno exit at Courseulles. But congestion as Canadian 9th Brigade arrives.

11.20 Canadians capture Tailleville, Banville and St Croix.

12.00 As Winston Churchill reports landings to House of Commons, German defences on Omaha breached in four places. US troops start advance inland, but beach still under heavy fire. Further landings on Juno. Langrune captured by Juno troops.

13.00 Pouppeville captured by troops from Utah; who now link up with airborne forces. US troops advance on Beuzeville au Plain and Les Forges. Troops at Omaha begin securing beach; 30 minutes later begin moving inland.

13.30 1st Special Service Brigade Commandos link with 6th Airborne Division at Pegasus Bridge.

13.35 German 352nd Division wrongly advises HQ that Allied assault repulsed. Message not corrected until 18.00.

14.00 Eight hours after landings began on Omaha, first beach exit is cleared. An hour or so later, first tanks and vehicles gradually begin to move off beach.

14.15 All Canadian 3rd Division now ashore on Juno. Rapid advances start: troops link with those from Gold.

14.30 21st Panzer Division starts counter-attack towards coast. Half an hour later 12th SS Panzer Division groups south of Caen.

16.00 Le Hamel finally captured by troops from Gold. 231st Brigade moves on to Arromanches. First armour starts to move off Omaha.

16.05 9th Brigade moves inland from Sword. 185th Brigade beats off attack by German 21st Panzers at Periers Ridge. British advance pauses.

18.00 3rd Canadian Div, North Nova Scotia Highlanders reach three miles inland. 1st Hussar tanks cross Caen-Bayeux railway, 10 miles inland. Canadian Scottish link with 50th Division at Creully.

20.00 US troops from Omaha capture St Laurent and Colleville. Canadians from Juno Beach reach Villons les Buissons, seven miles inland. Bénouville captured by troops from Sword. German counter-attack as 21st Panzers reach coast between Sword and Juno at Luc-sur-Mer.

20.30 56th and 151st Brigades from Gold now at outskirts of Bayeux and Caen-Bayeux road. Half an hour later they capture Arromanches.

22.00 Rommel returns to HQ from Germany. Montgomery sails for France.

At the end of the longest day

Gold Beach: 25,000 troops landed, with fewer than 1,000 casualties. Bridgehead established, six miles wide and deep, linking with Canadians at Juno.

Juno Beach: 21,400 troops landed, with fewer than 1,000 casualties. Aim of capturing Carpiquet airfield not achieved. No link yet with Sword forces.

Omaha: 34,250 troops landed, with 2,000 casualties. Three men won Congressional Medal of Honor. Beach littered with bodies, but an insecure beachhead won. US troops cover an area five miles wide.

Sword: 29,000 troops landed, with fewer than 1,000 casualties. Troops reach six miles inland.

Utah: 23,250 troops ashore, fewer than 200 casualties. US airborne divisions suffered 2,499 casualties. Troopsfour miles inland.

The media then

By Steve Bloomfield

The morning newspapers on 7 June were upbeat. "Invasion Going Well," claimed The Times. News of the Normandy landings had first been announced at 12pm the day before, when Winston Churchill made a statement to the House of Commons. With no 24-hour rolling news and no fast communications systems, the press had to wait a little longer before eyewitness accounts were filed.

Journalists and photographers risked their lives to bring news of the landings. Firmly embedded within military units, journalists faced the same battery of gunfire as the troops as they landed on the beaches. Doon Campbell, who was reporting on the invasion for Reuters, arrived with Lord Lovat's Commandos. Mr Campbell's first report was filed from "a ditch 200 yards inside Normandy" and his eyewitness report made the front page of the London Evening News on 9 June. "It is a miracle that I am alive to write this story," he wrote. "Bombs, shells, bullets and mines, to say nothing of booby traps, make each hour an age of grim experience."

Getting information back to the UK was a problem. Reports that today can be sent around the world in the blink of an eye had to be entrusted with naval or RAF officers returning home. Campbell's first dispatch never made it. The acclaimed photographer Robert Capa managed to get his photos home, only for a darkroom assistant to ruin them all by drying them out too quickly. Some journalists resorted to carrier pigeons: one Reuters correspondent, Montague Taylor, used a pigeon named Gustav to fly the first report of the landings back home.

The first reporter to hit the beaches was AP's Roger Greene. In his dispatch at 9.55am he wrote: "Landed 0845, wading ashore waist-deep water under fire ... Western part Atlantic Wall under tempestuous Allied assault. As I write, deeply dug in to beachhead, German prisoners, mostly wounded, streaming back but Bosch still putting up terrific fight. Shells exploding all over beach and out at sea as wave after wave of Allied ships as far as eye can see sweeping into shore."

The media now

By Nicholas Pyke

The Ministry of Defence is hard at work coping with the forces of journalism. Some 120 Fleet Street reporters have descended on the lanes of Normandy, plus hundreds more broadcasters and technicians from television and radio in the most tightly controlled British media operation since the Queen's Jubilee celebrations two years ago. The BBC alone will deploy 175 reporting staff.

This weekend's coverage depends heavily on the British Army, which has built press centres at the main memorial locations, and is providing transport to the key events of the weekend, a captive state of affairs that modern war correspondents will find familiar. There is an international media centre in Caen, but the main hub for British reporters is a Moulinex factory at Bayeux.

D-Day has enjoyed a healthy presence in both American and French papers, while provoking nothing like the scale of interest in this country, where the BBC, for example, is broadcasting about 50 hours on television and radio. Japan has barely noticed the event.

In Germany the anniversary celebrations have emerged as front-page news, thanks to Gerhard Schröder's decision to attend - the first invitation extended to a German Chancellor for such an event. On coming to office, Mr Schröder promised to draw a line under the country's difficult past and establish more "normal" international relations. His visit today has mostly been welcomed as the Allied invasion is now regarded as a key step in liberation from Nazi rule.

Yesterday, though, he was criticised in the tabloid Bild for his refusal to visit the mass graves of German war dead at La Cambe, including those of SS troopers. The Chancellor has gone so far as to describe D-Day as "a day of gratitude for the freedom which was won starting there", saying his attendance "shows the Second World War is finally over". D-Day has made the front covers of the news magazines Stern and Der Spiegel, while the public TV channel ZDF has been screening a documentary series called Liberation.